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Another troubling juvenile court case

Statements by prosecutors following the January 16 ruling by a San Francisco Juvenile Court judge that four "Potrero Hill gang members" committed first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and gang-related crimes in the 2007 shooting death of a 17-year-old woman and wounding of another teen outside a community center raise troubling questions about juvenile justice.
 
According to prosecutors and the judge's ruling, one of the youths, now an adult, used a gun to murder the woman while the others' roles were described in inconsistent terms as having actively participated in the crimes. The purpose here is not to dispute the prosecutors' evidence or second-guess the judge's ruling in this brutal case, but to express concern about juvenile court procedures.
 
Prosecutors, while characterizing the Potrero shootings as fitting the most heinous category of first-degree murder--a conspiracy, they contended, by four gang members, two of which recently turned 18, to avenge a personal slight by publicly gunning down innocent people--nevertheless declined to file the case in adult criminal court, where defendants convicted of such an offense would receive 25 years to life imprisonment. Instead, they filed the case in juvenile court, acknowledging that the four could not be held in juvenile prison after their 25th birthdays.
 
After the ruling, the Chronicle reported, prosecutors said they chose the juvenile court because its procedures and evidence rules make it easier to win convictions there. In particular, juvenile courts permit prosecutors to try four youthful defendants accused of the same crime together in front of a judge, while similarly accused adults are afforded the right to a jury trial and are protected by evidence rules that require separate trials in which individual defendants can present evidence disputing their collective responsibility for the crime.
 
The inevitable suspicion, given San Francisco prosecutors' own statements, is that they were less confident that they could win first-degree murder convictions for all four defendants as gang members under the stricter rules of evidence, jury trial, and other procedural rights afforded defendants in adult criminal court. Thus, they opted for the juvenile court's more lenient, prosecutor-friendly standards.
 
You can't blame prosecutors for taking advantage of the system; they'd be stupid to do otherwise. But the larger policy question is troubling. Juvenile courts should not be venues where it is easier to win convictions on more serious charges than adult courts would allow for juvenile or grownup defendants who commit like offenses. Nor should juvenile justice rules permit youths to be convicted en masse in cases in which individual adult defendants would enjoy broader rights to protect themselves, including the potent defense that they were innocent bystanders to an associate's cold-blooded murder and are guilty, at worst, of lesser included offenses.
 
The Potrero case is not isolated. For all the tough talk prosecutors (less so in San Francisco than elsewhere) dispense castigating juvenile gangs and killers, state Division of Juvenile Justice statistics for 2006 show prosecutors across the state choose to file five times more youthful homicide cases in juvenile courts rather than in adult criminal courts. It appears that prosecutors often realize they can best achieve their goal of winning the harshest sentence on the most serious charges by availing more lax juvenile court standards in cases stricter adult courts might not sustain.
 
Prosecutors' candor in the Potrero case provides more evidence that California's juvenile justice procedures need serious rethinking. Juvenile courts are not supposed to be a bargain shop for prosecutors seeking an easy route to fewer protections and harsher convictions than adults would receive.

Keywords: adult court transfers, dispositional options, Mike Males, prosecutors

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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